Needle Felting must be the ultimate hobby for masochists. Risking a blood bath of torn skin does add a certain frisson to a craft. My cousin Amy warned me, but I laughed, haha, and booked myself and Blonde Geraldine in for a needle felting workshop on the Sunday of Wonderwool. Ruth Packham taught a group of us how to make a needlefelt brooch. She was a lovely tutor, let us design our own things, made it all seem simple. We were well chuffed with our brooches and recommend her http://www.etsy.com/people/Ruthfully# Ruth told us to keep the other hand away from the barbed needle we were poking into our bits of fleece. Judging by the yelps that punctuated conversation round the table, other people like a bit of extreme crafting too.
Enthused, BG and I scooted off to buy packs of needles from felters' stalls before the show was over. Bank Holiday Sunday was spent making small needle felted baskets in the sunshine. Going from a flat brooch to a three dimensional item was bound to be a challenge, but I had a cunning plan.
Needle felting involves stabbing a long, barbed needle through wool fibres held against a dense bit of foam. Ultimately, this causes the fibres to mat together. When I saw this toddler size foam football in the supermarket, I reckoned it would do the shaping for me. I filled a flower pot with stones for stability, taped the ball on top, then started to felt on bits of washed Zwartbles fleece.
Zwartbles, with its bouncy crimp and scaley fibres, felts up a treat. It took hardly any time to get the ball covered with a strong woolly hairdo.
Ruth had warned us against felting Merino wool. It is luxuriously soft and desirable for things worn next to the skin, but has fibres so smooth that their scales are a devil to get interlocked. I had also washed some of my leftover Jacob X Texel fleece, to make a swirly grey/brown outer layer. This felted on ok, but took noticeably more stabbing to get it firmly applied. Although you are supposed to keep moving the felt around on the foam, so as not to weld it on with tiny fibres poked through, my double layer of felt did peel off the foam football leaving a fairly cohesive nest. I felted further by stabbing it from the inside or down through the sides. Without the foam ball, I started spiking my leg or my fingers, finding out just how right Amy was. Luckily, Zwartbles doesn't show the blood stains. Now I know how to value her good advice about using a really thick bit of foam as a protective cushion.
Still, I got it felted into a solid nest.
Decoration - a final touch. Two eggs made from a sample bag of exquisitely soft angora. This wool does not like to needle felt. It took ages to build up layers that did not fluff up and peel back off again.
Making the bird's nest basket rammed home a message I have been broadly ignoring. My first library books on spinning showed locks of raw fleece and described how the staple length from shorn end to tip and the crimp, or wiggliness of its individual fibres, and the thickness of the fibres themselves, all vary between breeds of sheep and from young sheep to older ones. Claire Boley advised going to the local Wool Marketing Board and seeing and feeling the fleeces before buying. I just saw some on eBay and thought wow, wool, I want it. Blind luck that the first thing I bought was two Jacob X Texels, suited to the jumper and wrap I wanted to make. After my next random purchase, kind people on Ravelry did gently suggest my scorned Zwartbles fleece had sterling qualities, combining colour, softness and durability. I was just disappointed that I couldn't get it to comply with my desire to spin a fine, luxurious yarn. I went for another Jacob, since at least I thought I knew where I was with it. This remains a work in progress, during which I have made still more fundamental errors. Most recently, I have leaped headlong into buying some Gotland fleece, because I had read of its fabulous storm cloud colours. I was told, but took no bloody notice - handling it is going to need a completely new skill set. Now I find that the even the invisible scaliness of each breed's fibres affects its needle felting properties. Just look at my varieties of fleece so far and wonder how I could have missed the fact that they differ in so much more than colour.
Now my bedtime reading is The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius. I have also found a brilliant free online video tutorial by one of the authors, which takes you from looking at the sheep to choosing and sourcing ready spun balls of wool from breeds suitable for different types of project.
What combination of softness, lustre, elasticity and durability is the best? The moral of this story is - love the one you're with.
All fleece is wonderwool and I am not worthy. Pass me the felting needle and let me stab myself again. Just to rub salt in my many tiny wounds, BG sat there on Sunday titting about with lairey bits of vulgar, multicoloured roving. She had no idea what kind of sheep they came from. And yes, her needlefelt basket is much prettier than mine. Cow.